By Corporate English Solutions

22 May 2023 - 15:28

What L&D professionals need to know about soft skills development

Why are soft skills so hard? 

Although crucial for success, they can be perplexing, complex, and challenging. Unlock the secrets behind soft skills learning, development, measurement and evaluation and gain valuable insights in our interview with Kate Sullivan, Head of Services and Talent at British Council Corporate Solutions. 

Get ready to level up your learning!


Reading time: 4 minutes

Why are soft skills so hard?

Soft skills, such as interpersonal, communication and leadership skills can be challenging to define, measure, and develop. They are complex and subjective: deeply rooted in individual behaviours, attitudes, and social interactions. 

However, developing soft skills is increasingly vital for your organisation’s success. Without soft skills learning, organisations risk decreased engagement, performance and productivity, losing their competitive edge. HR and L&D professionals need to ensure they stay up to date with soft skills development trends, challenges and solutions to navigate the evolving landscape and drive organisational success.

But often, we don’t know what we don’t know. 

Thankfully, that help has landed! We interviewed Kate Sullivan, Head of Services and Talent for British Council Corporate Solutions, to find out what we need to know about soft skills learning. Dive into Kate’s answers and enhance your learning.

Understanding soft skills learning and development

What’s the first thing I need to know?

The first step, as ever with learning initiatives, is to know the organisation’s goals, context, plans and the skills needed in different roles.  And with soft skills this is even more important.


Soft skills is a broad term and covers many abilities and aptitudes such as communication, leadership, critical thinking and interpersonal skills. It may be tempting to try and develop all soft skills at once, give employees a quick knowledge check and tick the “learning completed” box. 

Don’t! It can be counterproductive. It can be confusing and overwhelming, leading to a lack of focus and direction. Employees certainly won’t be able to transfer the learning and demonstrate competence in the workplace which may reduce ROI. What’s more, as L&D teams increasingly face resource constraints, it can become overwhelming to procure or develop soft skills courses that cover everything. 

Providing personalised learning and encouraging employees to focus on a few, targeted soft skills for professional development is the best way to maximise progress and achieve tangible results. 

Are some soft skills harder than others?  

To master? Yes. 

We know that soft skills in the workplace such as handling conflict, leadership and influencing require a combination of cognitive, social and emotional competencies and this complexity makes them harder to master. The OECD’s framework on skills for the future, identifies the complexity of cognitive and emotional skill development: they require higher level and consequential thinking, maturity, and the ability to take responsibility.

Plus, soft skills can all be broken down into micro skills at multiple levels of challenge. Take communication skills. Communicating report findings in writing is less challenging than verbally convincing managers to act on your recommendations. More challenging still is convincing disengaged managers. 

Start with fundamental skills and once your employees have reached the level of competence they need in their role, build on them. Step-by-step boosts confidence and motivation to learn more. It also enhances the transfer of learning to new contexts and is preparation for developing more advanced skills later. 

Why does it take so long to develop soft skills? 

Soft skills development tends to take longer as it involves changing behaviour, habits and mindset. Besides, it’s a more complex process of learning as it involves practice, feedback and reinforcement. This requires time to become deeply ingrained. And for this, we need commitment to our ongoing learning and development to maintain and improve these skills.

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to develop specific skills more quickly

Designing soft skills pathways

What advice do you have on curating soft skills pathways?  

There are different ways to curate pathways, however, to map something this complex, I recommend using a matrix. You can list the skills needed for the different job scopes and levels of seniority, and the desired levels of competence for each. If you decide to develop your own competency statements, make sure they are measurable by following these four steps. Alternatively, you could consider off-the-shelf solutions or partner with a soft skills training providers to develop a customised matrix. 

You can then use the matrix to benchmark current levels of competence and map journeys for different employee personas. Focusing on the core skills needed, and providing a pathway to follow, gives employees much needed direction and a sense of progress. 

Let’s say you’re onboarding large numbers of graduates, for example, into various roles. As they may have little work experience or previous soft skills training but high levels of potential, curate a foundation level pathway relevant to develop a range of fundamental skills. Include areas such as communication, time management, teamwork and problem-solving. And don’t forget workplace English training where needed.

Now let’s imagine you have a group of sales execs with strong foundation level skills who are looking to move into their first management position within 1-2 years. Their pathway would look very different. Programmes based on those critical skills for 2023, should include leadership essentials, stakeholder engagement and influencing skills, executive presence and advanced communication skills.

Measuring and reporting ROI of soft skills training

How can L&D teams measure soft skills competence?  

We know it can be challenging to assess soft skills. Competence is often subjective and hard to quantify. What’s more, there are few industry standard assessment tools measuring soft skills in the workplace, and many rely on self-assessments or tests of knowledge which doesn’t always translate into performance. 

One of the most effective ways to evidence skills development is through in-training or workplace observations or simulations to assess employees demonstrating soft skills. Base these on the matrix and competency statements with examples of performance at each level for greater consistency. Train trainers, observers and assessors in their use so they can be objective and consistent. 

It can be challenging to do this observer-led assessment at scale. Leverage systems such as 360 assessments, performance enablement and reviews, and stakeholder surveys to gather information and a gain a big picture of individual competency levels.

How can we report ROI of soft skills training programmes? 

Be mindful of what non-L&D professionals in your organisation are looking for when it comes to evidence as they may not have the same depth of understanding on soft skills. In our experience, business leaders are looking for data to ensure any training is giving the business a competitive advantage and justify ongoing investment. 

Consider which data points will have the most impact on your stakeholders: comparative data, performance metrics, customer satisfaction levels, time to proficiency, employee engagement and productivity can be useful.

The subjective nature of soft skills and the lack of tools for pre-, during and post-training benchmarking is challenging. But by taking a more strategic approach to training evaluation, you can engage stakeholders in the process and influence them better. 

Follow these tips to ensure soft skills development is an essential component of your learning initiatives in 2023. And stakeholders will not need to be convinced of the case for ongoing investment. They will know it.

British Council has partnered with organisations worldwide for over 80 years to develop soft skills, enhancing engagement and collaboration, and boosting productivity and performance. Partner with us to unlock the learning power of soft skills in your teams.